The restaurant business is in crisis and one of the main threats to the industry is the lack of staff. Over the last two years, so many experienced chefs have walked away from a job they love because of poor working conditions, especially the negative impact the kitchen can have on their well-being.
The need to change kitchen culture has driven the conversation in food media and at gastronomy events for years now, and many are making a positive change to leave toxic habits and practices in the past. But the next generation of chefs represent the biggest opportunity to completely change the mindset in kitchens, and by giving them the right tools from the beginning, those seeds of change have the best chance of flourishing in the future.
Annette Sweeney is the founder of The Mindful Kitchen, a module that is taught to culinary arts students at Technology University Dublin. It was partly the inspiration she took from attending the Food On The Edge event over the years that she drew inspiration for her approach.
“Food on the Edge has always inspired me. Since 2015, we’ve designed new programmes based on the inspiration we found there,” says Sweeney. “So we have a BA Hons in botanical cuisine, which is actually based on the Airfield Estate, where chefs go back to the farm and learn how to grow food. It was a European first. I also designed a Masters in Applied Culinary Cuisine which was a global first. It’s all about getting chefs to understand the science behind putting health and wellness on the menu.”
Sweeney saw the benefits that mindfulness had in her own life and saw the transformative potential for its use in education and culinary education in particular.
“I have my own mindful practice, whatever you want to call it, and I became more and more aware of the need to bring it into education. I started using it first in teaching research studies to chefs because I’m very aware that many chefs have barriers to academic writing. So I use mindfulness to break down those barriers. It’s a pedagogy in itself. It’s called contemplative pedagogy or contemplative inquiry.
“I dabbled in it to see how it would go and there was a very interesting outcome. I went to America to find out more about it. And one of the questions I encountered was: how are you going to bring this into your teaching?”
“The idea that came from that was to really bring it alive in the kitchen. The chefs on the Masters were telling us how it was really impacting their teams. They were head chefs and they could see how they were reacting with their own teams. They could see the impact in their personal life but also in their work life."
Mindfulness is everywhere these days and it would be easy to dismiss it, were it not so incredibly effective in transforming individuals, teams and workplace environments.
“I look at mindfulness for chefs from two angles – themselves, minding their mind, using qigong, chef yoga, breath-work, focusing on yourself, and focus on one thing. Very basic stuff, but it’s done in the kitchen, so when they’re in the job they can relate to that space. It’s not something that’s just taught in a classroom, but when they're feeling the stress during service they can bring it back to that simple practice – just rock your feet. Little tips to deal with stress in the kitchen."
“Different things work for different people, some like the breath-work, others might like three minutes silence. Secondly, we look at kitchen culture and that’s looking at the types of leaders that they can be in the future, they do role-play scenarios and they discuss that. They would also use mindfulness from a food sourcing point of view and from a cooking point of view – being mindful when you’re putting a dish together, mindful creativity. Being innovative with a single piece of fruit, by using the waste. Some chefs don’t believe they can be creative, but everybody has that capability."
More recently, the idea of social gastronomy - the theme of this year’s Food On The Edge symposium - has gathered momentum, and Sweeney is integrating that into her work. Culinary students are passionate about using their skills to make the world a better place.
“Listening to JP (McMahon) talking during lockdown it became clear that social gastronomy is the new hospitality. So if that’s the case, we should be training chefs for this new hospitality and also building on the creativity part. The premise for this was that we would build it with the students and that was an eye-opener. They said they want to feed the homeless, they sent ingredients out to people and they would stream demos and cook-alongs, supported by a social partner, to feed those in need."
“If you are going out to work on the ground, with positive emotions, the first thing is that you have to be really grounded in yourself. So we're getting the students to really look at themselves through mindfulness, with empathy, gratitude and kindness. Looking at positive emotions, positive health is where we’re going. If you look at burnout, that’s what we need. So I put together a new culinary arts model, based on applied positive psychology. I think that’s the future and we need to embed that in education.”